After the 2016 election, we knew that our work would need to encompass more than resisting the Trump regime’s horrible policies. More than just playing defense, we would need to keep advancing the equitable and just clean energy solutions that, ultimately, are what will save our air, water, public lands, communities, and climate. And we have: Almost 120 cities and municipalities have committed to 100% clean energy since Trump took office, including — just last week — a breezy little burg called Chicago. Clean energy is barreling along like an electric semi truck, and Trump can’t stop it.
So we shouldn’t worry about whether 100% clean energy will happen: It’s inevitable. What we do need to be concerned about is how it will happen and who is affected. As change makers, we must be honest about the repercussions of the big transformation we need, from dirty fuels to clean energy.
For instance, the decline of the fossil fuel economy is already profoundly affecting some communities that have depended on the economic security it provided. Someone who has spent decades working in a coal plant or who is a third- or fourth-generation coal miner has every right to feel betrayed when those jobs disappear. But instead of lying about what is happening, as our president so effortlessly does, it is critical to listen, empathize, and work even harder to make their transition both easier and more just. Does that make our job easier? No, but we didn’t take this work on because we were looking for something easy. We’re doing it because it’s necessary and because it’s right.
That’s just one example. As the clean energy revolution progresses, we are sure to encounter many more situations where we must purposefully hold ourselves to a higher standard. One tough issue that’s just around the corner for clean energy technology (and already is affecting other tech industries) is the sourcing and supply of the rare-earth elements, such as cobalt and lithium, that are used for batteries and other electronic components.
According to a new report from Earthworks, demand for those minerals, some of which are already in short supply, will rise dramatically with the growth of clean energy technologies like electric vehicles, battery storage, solar panels, and wind turbines. But the problem is even bigger than finding the resources needed for those technologies. How those minerals are mined is problematic. Much of the world’s cobalt, for instance, currently comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where so-called artisanal (or small-scale) mining is rife with pollution and human rights violations, including child labor.
These problems aren’t new, and they aren’t unique to clean energy technologies (smartphone manufacturers have been wrestling with this issue for awhile) — but it is vital to be aware that the energy solutions needed could make these problems worse. So what can we do?
As the Earthworks report points out, we can start now by encouraging the recycling of these materials by consumers and demanding it of manufacturers. To avoid unnecessary mining, manufacturers should always use recycled materials for their products before relying on virgin ore. And when they do purchase minerals from raw ore, manufacturers must ensure that it comes from operations that meet the highest labor and environmental standards. Some companies, to their credit, are already attempting to do this on their own, but it’s not easy. What’s needed are strong, enforceable standards that everyone can commit to — at least until the development of technological workarounds for the use of these materials.
It also goes without saying that stronger laws are needed in every country where these minerals are mined (including our own, where some of this mining is already happening and more mining is likely). Those mining laws need to both respect human rights and protect the environment. And because it’s unlikely that every mining country will enact such laws right away, international trade rules should allow more-responsible countries to refuse to trade in products that don’t meet labor and environmental standards. (The North American Free Trade Agreement, perversely, does the opposite, and its proposed successor would be no better.)
Above all, though, we need to be mindful that our goal of 100% clean energy is more complicated than simply getting rid of X and replacing it with Y. We already know some of the challenges ahead, and we can be sure there will be more. That’s OK. We’ll use every ounce of our creativity, innovation, and passion to meet those challenges. And as we do, we’ll keep reminding ourselves that being on the right side of the transition from dirty fuels to clean ones does not give us a pass on human rights or environmental justice issues.
Being “better than Trump” is not enough. We only get one chance to shape the future — let’s use our minds and our hearts.